Full Circle

In the spring of last year, my friend told me that she was expecting her third child.  Her due date was March 25 2014.  Samuel was born on March 21. Watching Sara on her pregnancy journey was like revisiting my own pregnancy with Samuel week by week.  In the two months preceding Samuel’s birthday and Sara’s due date, I was barely able to see her.  The anticipation of her birth and the site of her belly were triggering my own experience of loss something fierce.  It was almost too much to bear.

Up until Samuel’s year anniversary I had been missing his physical presence so much that the pain of that missing seemed to get in the way of allowing his spirit to lift me and help me to feel joy and embrace life.  It had been painful for me to hear babies crying at the grocery store.  I could not be around pregnant women without feeling uncomfortable.  Listening to other mothers’ conversations about the woes of nursing or the challenges of juggling newborns and toddlers was almost nauseating.

I have hated this experience.  I have always related to woman wearing these similar shoes of motherhood and relished in our similarities.  Simply witnessing conversations surrounding pregnancy, childbirth or rearing of these little beings has always made me feel connected to my own experience of motherhood even more.  Being alienated in those same circumstances was completely traumatic.  I have felt ashamed of myself, yet unable to do anything about it.  There was no shoving it aside.  Allowing space for the discomfort and moving through it was the only way to get it to fade to the background a little.  I wondered how long I would have to endure these triggers.  How long before I would connect instead of withdraw in the same circumstances?

The anniversary of Samuel’s death and birth passed.  I made room for the sadness and relived each moment.  I made space for celebrating his life too and our love for him.  My friend Sara was there every step of the way, and stood by me in my grief, even when I couldn’t share in her imminent joy.  I navigated this milestone well.  I did it!  Somehow now, I feel lighter and more peaceful.  I feel steadier on my feet, and dare I say it, more optimistic.  I am more comfortable with the way it is, and less focused on the way it was supposed to be.  I feel my little guy’s essence in everything I do, and am embracing it as a gift.

As we talked one day, I realized that discussing the birth of Sara’s baby wasn’t as hard as it once was.  I commented on how exciting it would be to give birth to her precious baby girl and how I love the labour and delivery.  (Yes I am weird like that.)  She laughed, and then invited me to witness her baby’s delivery.  She said that she and her husband had discussed it and wanted to share the experience with me.  They thought it could be very healing for me to be there, if I was ready.

I was lost for words in that moment.  The selflessness and generosity of this offer was overwhelming.  But I didn’t know how to answer.  I really didn’t know if I was ready.  How would I know?

Sunday evening, only a few weeks ago, Sara text messaged me that she was in active labour and would let me know when she got into a delivery room.  I felt nervous.  I still wasn’t sure I would be able to be there.  I continued to prepare for Monday morning, and decided to see how I felt when she texted next.  My heart was beating fast and I couldn’t relax.  The moment her husband messaged me that she was 6 cm dilated, I sprang into action.  I knew right then that I was ready to witness her daughter’s birth.

I stumbled out of the door into the most peaceful night.  Snow was falling lightly as I drove to the hospital.  I spoke to Samuel as I travelled and asked him to be there with me and help me to be able to feel the joy of this experience, and to not let my own fear and pain get in the way of being present to my friend.  I stepped into the elevator and arrived on the 5th floor.  I moved through the doors to the labour delivery unit.  Although I paused and remembered entering them that awful day just one year ago, that memory didn’t hold me back.   I could recall going through those same doors, not just the time I had Samuel, but for the delivery of all of my other babies too.  I felt Samuel’s spirit willing me to remember the beauty there.

I found Sara’s room.  She was working hard in labour, lying on her side, grasping her husband’s hand with each contraction.  I stood on the other side of the bed and encouraged her as the pain became more frequent and intense. The wonderful nursing team attended to her, and I watched in amazement at my friend’s strength and endurance.  She was gracious as always, even in that pivotal moment when pain of labour threatens to take sanity and will.   Sara’s husband whispered to her that yes she could do it, and yes it really was too late for an epidural as the baby was going to come any moment. I merely nodded my head in agreement as she looked at me pleadingly.

Moments later, she was 10 cm dilated, and I watched as Sara bore down against the pressure with all her might.  Her wonderful husband was shouting joyfully for her to push and my exhausted friend did just that.  A full head of curly hair began to emerge.  Samuel had the same dark curls.  But not for one moment was this his curly hair, in my mind.  This was the first glimpse of baby Mishl, the beautiful daughter of my beautiful friend.

She entered the world blue, then pink, and her cries made me laugh out with utter happiness.  She had arrived!  She was safe.  I breathed a prayer of thanks.  The nurses placed the baby on Sara’s tummy but exhaustion had overcome her and she struggled against shock in the aftermath of her experience.  “Let Shannon hold her'” she whispered to her husband.  “Let her hold her.”

I was awestruck.  Mine would be the first arms to hold this child.  I picked up this perfect baby, sniffed her wet head and kissed her little face.  I held her against me and whispered in her ear.  “Welcome sweet girl.  Welcome to the world.  You have no idea how much love is waiting for you here.”

She is the first baby I have held to me since I held Samuel in my arms.   There was no sadness in my heart in that moment, just simple joy.

As I left to return home, I tentatively walked past the room where I had delivered Samuel.  It was empty.   I stood in the doorway and looked in.  I saw the window through which the sunrise found me as I delivered him.  I saw the bed I lay in and the chair his Daddy sat in and cried.  But it was just a room.  Samuel was not there.  The memories were not held by those walls.  I turned to leave, and remembered the heaviness of my steps on the floor of the hallway as I left my son there in that room, cold and alone.  Everything in me had yearned to break from the arms which were holding me up and run back to take him with me.

Leaving that night, I put new foot steps down, lighter ones this time.  I walked down that corridor, my heart healed.

Sharing this intimate event had helped me come full circle on my journey through grief.  This was my friends’ most generous gift to me.

Witnessing the birth of their daughter helped me remember the joy of giving birth to all of my children, not only our loss of Samuel.

Holding their baby helped me feel peace instead of pain.

This experience had allowed me to rediscover aspects of motherhood I had disconnected from; the part of me that could embrace the delight of brand new life.

Thank you baby Mishl for helping me find the light again.  You are my beacon through the storm, a torch lighting the way on a dim path.

To you Sara, I am so deeply grateful.

Meaning of the name Mishl – beacon, light, torch

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My Very Own Midlife Crisis

Last year marked the start of my very own midlife crisis.  It started, as I describe in my post, http://fiveunder8.wordpress.com/2013/03/06/the-big-birthday/ on the cusp of the big scary birthday.  I was 38 going on 100 weeks pregnant, as sick as a dog, out of breath and very overwhelmed.

I was expecting my fifth child, and about to embark on another leave of absence from my job which, I was reminded by a senior colleague, was going to have a pretty negative impact on my team. In other words, support for my impending maternity leave was reluctant.  My manager had been given the orders to juggle my clinical duties to exclude my research project, meaning I would have to pursue that endeavour on my own time; clearly a sub optimal arrangement for my work-life balance.  Basically, my career at my current workplace was taking a turn in a direction I didn’t like at all.

My son was having a terrible year at school. Watching him struggle but still put on a brave face each morning and muscle his way through the day, was really tough.  He wasn’t sleeping, had developed anxiety and said that he felt stupid every single day.  His confidence was in the toilet.  We picked up the pieces every day when he returned from school, doing the dance between psychologist and cheerleader, trying to reinforce that he was bright and capable, offer some coping strategies and then help him get through his homework.  Between this dance, parenting other children at the same time, and managing the situation with the school for countless hours each week, I was very stressed and exhausted.

I didn’t feel like celebrating much as I turned the big 4-0. We decided to wait to plan a big to-do until later.  Later meant after the baby came and I felt more human.  In 2 weeks, I would be receiving the very best birthday gift in the whole world anyway.  I had been anticipating that gift for 9 months!  No birthday party could beat that!  The pregnancy had been hard the whole way through.  I had been sick and unwell the whole time.  I often said that I felt like I had been working really hard for this baby.

So at 40 weeks, I asked my doctors to induce.  I might have even begged.  I told them something seemed unusually hard and that I had never felt this way before.  I needed the baby out and I needed it to do it quickly.  They calmly reminded me that there was no clinical reason to induce me.  Being exhausted was just the way it was and that given the number of kids I was already parenting, as much could be expected.  I insisted that I needed to get on with it.  Then my physician looked at my chart, and exclaimed, “Ah!  You just had a birthday!  Normally we wouldn’t induce you as you are only just past 40 weeks pregnant, but you are 40 now.  The risk of stillbirth goes up significantly at that age.  Now we have a reason to induce.”

Now that’s foreshadowing.  They scheduled the induction for 24 hours later.

Then it happened; the sucker punch out of nowhere.    The day before I was going to be induced, Samuel’s heart stopped beating.

My baby boy dying was simply the final straw.  I am quite sure that some type of midlife crisis was already well underway, but the death of my beautiful baby boy really was like gasoline to fire.  I hated 40 more than I have ever hated a birthday or an age ever.   The entire past year, I have turned down every offer from everyone to celebrate it belatedly, over and over again.  “I don’t want to celebrate this stupid birthday.” I have said each time.  “There is nothing about 40 that is worth celebrating.” “I hate 40.” So we didn’t do anything.

But over the past week, I have suddenly felt like I should have done something.  After all, you only turn 40 once!  I started to regret that I let the whole year go by without doing any particular thing which would mark the occasion with some significance.  In the twilight of this milestone year, I realized that what had most certainly started out as the year I thought I would never survive, the year I have hated the most out of any other of my life thus far, and had become the year that I survived.

 I survived.

I made it through. I am still standing!  And I think maybe I am even standing straighter and taller and with more grace and faith than ever before.  All of the challenges, the stress, the grief, and the heart crushing pain were superseded.  They were transformed by strength and love, support and friendship and lots of prayer, reconstituting the rubble that I stood in the midst of into a brand new version of me. This rendition looks much different than last year’s version.

There is an obvious scar that I don’t hide.  I let it show.    And I give the cause of that scar a voice.  The silence of stillbirth makes me crazy. So I am not silent.

I am fiercely proud of my family.  My children are quite simply the light of my life.  And though no one will ever know my Samuel like I did, they will know his name, and his story. It is my story!  It is our family’s story.  And I am unfazed by those for whom this is uncomfortable.  Their discomfort may have given me pause before.  Now it gives me the words I write here.  My creativity has seen its rebirth because of them.

In this new version of me, I am clearer about what I want and what I don’t.  Much of this is different than it was before.  I don’t apologize for that.  I would have done before.

I experienced other unexpected losses this year in addition to my son.  Certain relationships ended because I finally stopped fighting for them. They were unhealthy and just didn’t work.  I have completely let them go, without reserving hope for their future.  I don’t hold onto “maybe one day…..” anymore.  Enough is enough. This has been a difficult and painful process, but it has been necessary.   I feel free and more peaceful since.

I am kinder to myself and more protective. Sometimes that means I am less kind to others, and less open.  I am less forgiving in some ways, but more tolerant.  I am indifferent to more things which don’t concern me, as my energy is more focused on what does.  I am still courageous and as always a fighter, but now I pick my fights more judiciously.  But may the good Lord help you if I bring that fight to your door.

I have allowed myself to become important to me again.  I learned how to let myself weigh back into the equation of my life.  I had been last on my own priority list for so long, I had fallen off of the bottom.  Sadly, this didn’t even bother me that much!  Now, I have a workout appointment almost every day with myself.  I don’t cancel.  I get more sleep.  I remember to take a snack for me, not just my kids.  I go out more with my friends, and I have hobbies that I actually pursue, not just remember pursuing.

Thank you little miss 40.  I am not scared of you anymore.  I don’t hate you anymore.  The journey of discovery I took along your road has been affirming. You marked the launching of a new part of my life in a new version of me, whom I am still just getting to know.  Sometimes living within this new skin feels uncomfortable, like a pair of new shoes which have not been completely broken in, but it is who I am now.  And the evolution is worth celebrating.